TN vs Kerala on Mullaperiyar: The real issue is trust deficit

The crux of the recent dispute between Tamil Nadu and Kerala is the safety — or lack thereof — of the Mullaperiyar dam. The Kerala position is that the dam is old and in an earthquake-prone zone and will not be able to withstand major earthquakes. As a result, Kerala wants the existing dam demolished and a new one built.

The first question that arises, therefore, is: is the dam safe? “The safety …was vouched (for) by expert committees several times in the recent years, a guarantee accepted by the Supreme Court,” says a report in The Indian Express.

But what about earthquakes? Can the dam withstand an earthquake of a magnitude higher than 6 on the Richter scale. According to an IIT Roorkee report quoted by the Express, the dam may not be able to withstand it.

The Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program (GSHAP), which was launched in 1992 by the International Lithosphere Program with the support of the International Council of Scientific Unions, developed maps depicting the seismicity and hazard levels of various zones. Both these maps, for the Indian region, do not suggest that the Idduki area, or, indeed Kerala, will experience earthquakes of magnitudes close to 6 on the Richter scale that IIT Roorkee suggests as being dangerous.

There are studies that Indian experts have conducted, and which the Supreme Court seems satisfied with, which suggest that the area around the dam does not face the risk of a high-intensity earthquake, which tends to support the Tamil Nadu stand on the issue.

Why is this then an issue at all? Is safety a bogey being raised by the Kerala side, or is there another side to the story?

The issue apparently is about control of the dam and its water.

The Mullaperiyar dam, which is physically located in Kerala, is under the control of Tamil Nadu. Wikimedia commons

Kerala proposes that the existing dam be demolished and a new one built. The state government’s position is that, in the event of a major earthquake, if the Mullaperiyar dam breaks, three other dams in Kerala at Idukki, Cheruthoni and Kolamavu will also give way under the pressure of the water from the Mullaperiyar. As a result, 3.5 million people living in the danger zone in Kerala would be at risk.

If the Mullaperiyar is demolished, five districts in Tamil Nadu will immediately face a water shortage, as they are dependent on the water from Mullaperiyar.

While Kerala maintains that the amount of water that Tamil Nadu receives will be maintained, there is obviously a trust deficit. The Mullaperiyar dam, which is physically located in Kerala, is under the control of Tamil Nadu; the proposed replacement dam will be controlled by Kerala.

The Centre and the Supreme Court need to step in and speedily ensure that the safety aspect of the dam is addressed unambiguously. If the dam is found to be safe, all the arguments of Kerala evaporate instantly. If the dam is found to be unsafe, decisions need to be taken to ensure that Tamil Nadu continues to receive the quantum of water that it received from the Mullaperiyar.

“I am sure that, given goodwill on both sides, an amicable and mutually acceptable solution can be found out through a process of dialogue and communication,” said the prime minister on the issue on Thursday.

The problem is, there is no ‘goodwill on both sides’. The issue is one of water, one that concerns both states. Both states are making pronouncements keeping an eye on the water – and on the votes.

It’s the central government which needs to act – on the side of right, not on the side of the vote-banks. And it needs to do so without dithering – to prevent the Mullaperiyar issue from becoming another in a long list of unmanageable problems made worse by vacillation and a complete lack of decision-making.

Updated Date: Dec 02, 2011 15:02 PM

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